The first two books of R. J. Barker’s The Tide Child trilogy (The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships) blew me away with a sustained level of sheer excitement, inventive detail of a sea-faring world of two archipelagos, a great set of characters and incredible staging of naval battles. These books brought me back to C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series from my boyhood and the more recent Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian. The Bone Ship’s Wake drives the story to an incredible conclusion, though with some plot intricacies and diversions that I thought took away from the powerful main thread of high seas adventure.
R.J. Barker started his remarkable fantasy adventure with The Bone Ships by introducing us to a drunken mess of a character named Joron Twiner. He’d been condemned to the black ships (all ships in this world are made from the bones of sea dragons) with other convicts and found himself in possession of the shipwife’s (captain’s) hat but in no way deserving the command. The Tide Child under 19 year-old Joron had fallen into complete disrepair and become a foul mess anchored near the town where Joron drowns himself in alcohol.
In the opening scene of The Bone Ships, his hat, a potent symbol of command, is taken from him by Lucky Meas Gilbryn, a woman renowned for courage and daring, a daughter of the ruler of the Hundred Isles. Despite her birth, she’s also been condemned to the black ships and so sets about getting command by duelling the inept Joron. She lets him live (contrary to custom) to earn his own place of respect among the crew and rapidly prepares the Tide Child for combat.
And so begins the story of Joron’s redemption. He becomes second in command as deckkeeper. Lucky Meas guides her devoted crew through a series of great naval battles to become a legend on the high seas of the strange fantasy world consisting of two archipelagos bounded by impenetrable storm systems in the four great directions.
At the end of Call of the Bone Ships, Lucky Meas gives herself up to become a prisoner of the Hundred Isles rulers. That is her sacrifice to keep the black bone pirate fleet safe.The concluding volume, The Bone Ship’s Wake, has an equally strong story at its heart as Joron Twiner and his crew set about a long search for Meas that has them raiding port after port to weaken the white bone ships of the Hundred Isles.
But a number of less exciting diversions involving political intrigues and betrayals and overland rescue missions, in my opinion, detracted from the flow of the main story, though each incident was carefully woven into the overall plot. As soon as Barker gets his characters back on shipboard, though, the epic scope of the master narrative overwhelmed any reservations I had about the middle of the book.
The first two chapters of The Bone Ship’s Wake (all Barker’s opening scenes take you right to the heart of the action) bring you first to a torture chamber where Lucky Meas suffers horrible pain to force her to give up secrets she doesn’t possess. Then we switch to a battle in which the Black Pirate raids a fortress city where, as we see from the point of view of a young defender about to be executed, this terrifying figure lines up the officers who refuse to surrender and join the pirates and makes them swing from the gallows.
That’s what Joron Twiner has become – the Black Pirate, having made his own legend as the fearless and brilliant commander of the Tide Child. He refuses to don the shipwife’s hat, reserving it for its rightful owner. His long mission is to free Lucky Meas from prison and restore her to her rightful place.
The bond between Joron and Lucky Meas is unbreakable and from Joron’s perspective justifies all the murder and mayhem he visits on the Hundred Isles world. That includes tricking the great white bone ships into towing a dying and infected sea dragon, the legendary keyshan, into their main harbor and thus poisoning most of the population with its plague. Joron’s conscience weighs on him for the thousands who have died at his hand, directly or indirectly, and he assumes that it is his own life that may have to be sacrificed to free Lucky Meas.
One of the most interesting characters in this series, and especially in The Bone Ship’s Wake, is the strange figure of the gullaime, a bird-like creature that talks to the winds and powers the ships. But the gullaime of the Tide Child has special powers that set it apart from all others, an ability to summon as ultimate power of the great winds. That parallels a power that Joron is believed by his crew to possess, the ability to summon up the dormant keyshan and set them against the Hundred Isles to win Meas’s freedom. Even he doesn’t believe that, though he can hear a sympathetic singing arise within him when a sea dragon is near.
There are a lot of surprises leading to a powerful climax for the entire series, one that is worth waiting for. The Tide Child trilogy for me is one of the strongest fantasy adventures of recent years. Now I say that as someone whose first love is science fiction, but there are so many amazing fantasy series coming out all the time that I’m rapidly changing my reading habits.